The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

This Sunday our readings go in quite different directions, so we’ll look first at Lamentations and then at our Gospel.

Lamentations. Since Pentecost our Old Testament readings have had us listening to the prophets’ warnings: if you continue to turn away from the true God and continue to oppress the vulnerable (who, like you, bear the image of that true God), things will turn out badly. In last week’s reading the Babylonian army had Jerusalem surrounded, and soon after that were inside. But rather than a triumphant “I told you so,” what Scripture gives us are five powerful laments.

If you look at them in the pew Bibles, you’ll notice that chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 all have 22 verses, and chapter 3, 66 verses. Why? The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, so we’ve got five acrostic laments, each verse beginning with the next letter in the alphabet, giving voice to grief from A to Z, and then back again. Chapter 3, the centerpiece, devotes three verses to each letter, so 66 verses total.

Grief over the loss of the beloved city, or—poetry is open-ended—a loved one, or a cherished dream: Lamentations knows that that’s hard work, but necessary work, and work in which there are no short-cuts. It’s part of being human. So, grief from A to Z, and then again, as often as needed.

Mercifully, the Bible doesn’t end with this book. There is an “after,” and the Bible explores what this “after” can look like. I could sketch out this exploration, but that might give the impression that grief is something to be moved past to get to the important part. No: grief is just as important as any other part, and we’ll know when we’re ready to wonder about that “after.”

We never want to be in a situation in which we need that book, but it’s there when and as often as we need it.

Deep breath. Our Gospel reading. Today’s reading comes directly after the rich man and Lazarus story we heard last week. That story was part of Jesus response to the Pharisees. Verse 14 in that chapter: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”

How do we speak truthfully about the Pharisees? It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus had much more in common with the Pharisees than he had with the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zealots, etc. When God looked for someone to spearhead the mission to the Gentiles, God drafted Paul the Pharisee. And, pulling back the camera, we acknowledge with gratitude the beauty and holiness that rabbinic Judaism, child of the Pharisees, has continued to produce over the centuries. What drove Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees was the twofold recognition that (1) too many of their leaders were not successfully resisting the temptations of power, and simply stuck, and that (2) his own disciples were too often not even recognizing that these were temptations to be resisted! The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ opposition—written decades later—have more to do with the conduct the church leaders should avoid than with what the Pharisees were doing.

So how is Jesus instructing the disciples?

Don’t be the cause of someone else stumbling. You’re responsible for each other.

If another disciple sins, rebuke. If that disciple repents, forgive—as often as necessary.

Following these instructions isn’t a matter of having more faith/trust. As Yoda put it “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

If you’ve followed these instructions, don’t give yourself airs. You’ve just done what needed to be done. (By the way, we don’t want to misuse that “worthless slaves” as a starting point for our self-definition. Jesus is happy to use hyperbole to help us avoid fatal mistakes, as in the prayer that starts “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” [Lk. 18:11])

OK. Jesus probably doesn’t get the warm-and-fuzzy award for these words. And as we look at these instructions, I think we see that Jesus is envisioning a more cohesive—and, frankly, riskier—community than we often settle for. The “safe” way of doing community is through a general hands-off pact: I’m OK, you’re OK, and we’ll leave it at that. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender.” But rebuke only works if through experience I know that the person rebuking me is doing so out of concern for me, not as an exercise in one-upmanship. That is, Jesus’ vision of community is of one that’s nurtured over time, not one that comes into being overnight.

A community that’s nurtured over time: that’s also behind “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” We’re slow learners. Sometimes my first “I’m sorry” is “I’m sorry I got caught out,” then, later, “I’m sorry that my action didn’t produce the result I intended.” Hopefully I eventually get to “I’m sorry that I even thought that was a good idea.” So seven times a day may be at the low end of the possible scenarios.

Pulling back the camera, how well have we attended to Jesus’ instructions? Too often, not very well, with results that periodically go sideways very publicly, the abuse scandals being simply the latest example. “She weeps bitterly in the night, / with tears on her cheeks…” We have Lamentations also to grieve over these failures.

So why does Jesus even bother? There’s a new world to be created. And God/Jesus, ever hopeful, who prefers to redeem rather than replace, doesn’t choose folk well-suited for the task, but folk like the disciples, folk like you and me, folk like Paul.

Speaking of Paul, what does our second reading contribute to all this? Perhaps this, that Paul really cares that Timothy get it right. It matters to Paul. And so, in a bit, when we pray “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven,” we’re not talking about a crowd that doesn’t care how the game goes, constantly at the concession stands or doing the wave. They care and intercede, and, supported also by their care and intercession, we’ll again go forth to “love and serve the Lord.”

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